2) I loved it. It’s well deserving of its reputation as a classic.
3) See you next week!
What’s that? You want elaboration? Well, you know, we all want to change the world. First, in full disclosure, I’ve owned this movie for months and never felt inclined to watch it. It was a Black Friday purchase…see Adam Riske’s column about how we accumulate these things. I knew it was a respected film and I knew that it was directed by George Lucas before his life was taken over by droids and men in brown robes (am I referring to Star Wars or kinky sci-fi fetish clubs? MAYBE BOTH!) and I knew that it took place in the classic age of early rock and roll and hot rods, but I just never felt compelled to put the disc into the player. Am I ever glad I did!
Smokey and the Bandit a few weeks ago already know that I’m going through a bit of a “thing” right now, and my quest to come to terms with a love of fast cars and southern culture has now expanded into a quest to find the real America, the mythic America, the America that people look back upon as “the good old days…”and to find out if those good old days ever really existed. I’ll be doing a lot of exploring of films in these areas in “Heath Holand On…,” because that’s where I’m at right now. As they always say, write what you know. Too bad that the working title for this column, “Heath Holland Cuts His Heart Out Each Week And Examines What It’s Made Of” is too long.
American Graffiti was just what the doctor ordered. Between the opening and ending credits, we get two hours of hot rods, classic early rock and roll, and a realistic interpretation of life as it was in 1962 before it all went crazy. The plot is simple and almost nonexistent: it’s the story of four friends the night before they leave for college. It’s a love letter to the glory days of high school, when your Saturday night consisted of gassing up your Chevy, picking up your girl, and cruising the small town for hours. It’s also a snapshot of life as it was just before the British Invasion and Vietnam, before hippies and drugs, before sit-ins and bed-ins, turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. Before the fragile, idealistic dream of post-World War II America was gone forever.
I won’t go too much into the plot, especially since I think everyone in the world had seen this except me. It’s a simple coming of age story, and besides, it’s not really about what happens -- it’s more about capturing a moment in time. What I was impressed with, though, was how much it affected me and how much I cared about the characters. Also, strangely, I was taken by how much this reminded me of American Pie. I mean, it’s not exactly the same, but both movies are about a group of friends after high school but before college, concerned about where their lives are going, forming and ending relationships, finding out who they really are, and trying desperately to get laid. I’m not saying American Pie copied American Graffiti in any way, but I think the latter might be largely responsible for establishing some of those themes in a realistic way that has created a template for others to use in the years since.
Ron Howard is the high school all star with limited aspirations and equally limited personality. He’s simple, and reminds me of so many of the jocks I knew in my own high school. They were popular, but I couldn’t tell you why. Richard Dreyfuss is Curt, the smart guy who's really worried about actually going to college because he’s afraid of moving on. Charles Martin Smith is the four-eyed geek trying to score. Paul Le Mat plays John, the hot rodding bad boy who cruises up and down the strip and wins every drag race he enters…until a cowboy hat-wearing Harrison Ford catches up to him, proving once again that Harrison Ford is the coolest man on Earth. He doesn’t get many lines and only has about five minutes of screen time, but he steals the movie with his effortless James Dean cool and his black '55 Chevy with a skull hanging from the mirror. I’m also now convinced that Cindy Williams was the '70s version of Zooey Deschanel -- the pixie girl with kaleidoscope eyes. But it’s a testament to George Lucas and his casting ability that all these actors feel so authentic in their roles. They don’t really seem like actors, they seem like real people from the time period. This whole movie feels like we’re peeking in on a real night in the life of these guys.
George Lucas did a wonderful job directing this movie. If I didn’t know and you told me this was directed by the same man who directed the Star Wars prequels, I would not believe you. He's not solely responsible for the script and I’m sure that helps, but still, the hallmarks of what I think of when I think of a George Lucas movie are not here. This movie is a masterpiece of character, and character is the one thing in which I never thought George Lucas movies excelled. The characters in Star Wars are merely avatars, archetypes that have been around for thousands of years (the heroic farmboy, the rogue, the princess, etc.). I suppose you could say that the characters in this movie are archetypes too, but these archetypes are real and more grounded. They feel like people you know.
Another impressive aspect of the film is that it takes place in a single California town over the course of a single night, but I never got bored or felt like we were rehashing the same thing over and over. It doesn’t feel claustrophobic; it feels open and free, and it makes life in 1962 seem VERY appealing. Cruising the town, looking for a girl to ride beside you, trying to steer clear of the cops and avoid (or find) a fist fight. It’s all very tempting. And this movie features dozens and dozens of classic early rock songs by Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, The Flamingos, and The Big Bopper (I love it when you call me Big Bopper, throw ya hands in the air like you’s a true playa). The music is a character in the movie, just as important as the actors.
I don’t want to neglect the fact that American Graffiti steers so far clear of controversial issues that were relevant at the time that I do question how faithful to life it actually is. Issues such as civil rights and equality for women are never addressed. In fact, I can’t recall seeing a single person of color in the movie. Is that how it really was in southern California in 1962, or is this a whitewashed (see what I did there) and sanitized version for mass consumption? That doesn’t seem fair, because Lucas is, after all, an outspoken voice for the left and has very progressive views on social issues. Maybe those issues just weren’t going on in the area at the time, but it does bear asking the question about why we see none of that.
If things work out, this summer my family and I will be packing up the car and going on a road trip to seek out classic America, to try to find it and touch it and experience some of these things before they’re gone. I think we’ll see plenty of small towns that are frozen in time, but I don’t think we’ll find the America depicted in American Graffiti. If it ever really existed, I truly believe it is now gone, lost in the progress of the last half century.
But thanks to the magic of film, we can travel back to that time. We can ride down those neon-lit streets while we listen to Wolfman Jack on the radio, and we can remember that time of long ago. And as long as we can remember it, as long as movies like this